Cosmos
by Witold Gombrowicz
Look at the various identities assumed.  
Student of law in Warsaw.  Young intellectual
in Paris.   Bank clerk in Buenos Aires.    Exile
in Berlin.  Respected author in the south of
France.  In a different
age, Witold Gombrowicz
might have enjoyed the
privileged life of the scion
of a wealthy Polish family.
Yet Polish life during the
middle decades of the 20th
Century was not conducive
to such ambitions. Gom-
browicz would instead earn
his place in Polish literary
history by writing works banned by Nazis and
suppressed by the Communists.  His decision
to wait out World War II in Argentina turned
into a quarter-of-a-century sojourn, and his
return to Europe was marked by a campaign
of slurs and denunciations orchestrated by
Polish authorities and the censorship of his
works in his native country.  But
Gombrowicz responded to the ban with one
of his one—his last will specified that none of
his works could be published in his homeland
unless his entire oeuvre was made available.  
Some two decades after his death from a
heart attack, in 1969 at age 64, his books—
widely known in underground editions and
copies smuggled from other countries—were
finally released in official versions in Poland.  
Completing this turnaround, the Ministry of
Culture of the Polish government declared
that 2004, the his centenary of his birth,
would be the "year of Gombrowicz."
ROGUES GALLERY:
WITOLD GOMBROWICZ
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The search for clues, and their interpretation—the
piecemeal reconstruction of the crime from the
accumulated evidence—are the most basic building
blocks of the mystery genre.   But what happens if
everything looks like a clue?  What if the difference
blurs between evidence and the random entropy of
day-to-day life?   What if even the crime itself
seems arbitrary or undefined, a non-descript,
anomalous circumstance beyond the interest of any
legal authorities?

These are the deliberately banal in-
gredients that Witold Gombrowicz
combines in his 1965 novel
Cosmos.  
The story is presented through the
perspective of a young man, also
named Witold, who has taken up
temporary lodging as a border in a
countryside home, sharing a room
with his melancholy companion
Fuchs.  Both are escaping an un-
pleasant situation in the city—
Witold running away from an unspecified family dispute
in Warsaw, and Fuchs seeking a vacation from his boss
Drozdowski and the mutual loathing that characterizes
his relationship with his superior.

Shortly before their arrival, the two travelers come
across a disturbing sight—a sparrow hanging on a bit of
wire from a tree branch.   It’s far from clear that any law
has been broken—the scenario is not dissimilar to the
pet murder Mark Haddon’s presents at the center of his
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time—but
sometimes the investigation of a peculiar non-crime
leads to unexpected discoveries of a far more dramatic
nature.   In this instance, our two protagonists are
haunted by the scene, and in the ensuing days they
consider the possible causes and implications of the bird
lynching.

They have little or no evidence to guide them.  But both
betray a tendency toward obsessive-compulsive
behavior, and soon they are perceiving potential clues
everywhere they look.  They see a mark on the ceiling
of their room that might be in the shape of an arrow—
perhaps placed there intentionally to assist them in their
investigations.   Why not?  Following the direction
indicated by the arrow, they travel from their room to
the hall and, eventually, outside, where they discover a
piece of wood hanging from a piece of thread in a niche
in the garden wall.  The connection with the sparrow is
vague and hypothetical, at best a weak analogy between
two things suspended unexpectedly in out-of-the-way
places.  But our protagonists believe they may be
unlocking some grand mystery.  

Yet, in their zeal to uncover the truth, our obsessed  
investigators create more problems than they resolve.   
Our narrator is soon peering into a housemate’s window,
searching a servant’s room on the flimsiest pretext,
killing a pet, asking leading questions and, in general,
meddling in everything that comes his way.   In the
warped mind of our protagonist, everything is connected
to everything else, and even the smallest details—a
facial expression, the idle movement of someone’s
fingers on the dinner table, a hummed melody—are
seen as somehow complicit in a growing web of
nebulous proportions.

Reading Gombrowicz’s tale, I was reminded of my
earliest days as a writer, working for the student
newspaper at my high school.  One of my classmates,
looking for a story to cover, set fire to the rubbish in a
trash can, then took photos, wrote up an account, and
ran his “scoop” in the weekly edition.  I can’t recall the
aftermath, but I suspect a teacher or other authority
figure pointed out the difference, perhaps unclear in my
colleague’s mind, between
covering the news and creating
the news.   When you try to do both at once, you have
hopelessly compromised your situation, and do neither
effectively.  A similar muddling of concepts has
infected the protagonists in Gombrowicz’s
Cosmos. They
are so anxious to have a mystery to solve, that they are
forced to create it themselves, albeit unwittingly—and
in the process become what is known as, in the parlance
of the constabulary, the
perps.  

This is an unusual scenario, but not without precedents
in fiction.  Jorge Luis Borges, in his story "Death and
the Compass," has described a series of murders that
are, in a very real sense, created by the inquiry that
seeks to solve them.   If the investigator had taken a
different approach, the crimes would have happened
differently.   In the detective story genre, this reversal
of cause and effect is rare enough, but in real life our
mental categories obviously dictate,
a priori, some
apparently "given" elements of the world that we
experience.  I tend to be skeptical of glib assertions of
the
social construction of reality (to borrow a once
fashionable term)—the kernel of wisdom here is often
pushed too far—yet it is just as dangerous to assume
that we are passive spectators at the pageant of our day-
to-day lives, viewing the proceedings as in a theater
where our preconceptions and mental constructs,
individual or collective, hold no constitutive power.  
Gombrowicz’s gambit is to push further than the rest of
us, and see whether the same conceptual framework can
handle, in story form, matters of life and death.  

"I gladly call this work 'a novel about a reality that is
creating itself,'" Witold Gombrowicz has commented.  
"And because a detective novel is precisely this—an
attempt at organizing chaos—
Cosmos has a little of the
form of a detective romance."   But this is not your
typical whodunit.  A disturbing, almost claustrophobic
quality pervades the work, and many readers will be
deterred by the sheer tedium which ensues when
arbitrary details take on such a central role in a novel.  
Yet Gombrowicz succeeds in showing, albeit in an
exaggerated, almost parodistic manner, a truth that may
elude us in more conventional narratives—namely that
our zeal to systematize, organize, and impose meaning
on events can drive the course of any story, whether on
the page or in real life.  In
Cosmos, he simply takes that
rule to its most extreme, paradoxical implication—
shocking us with the discovery that even idle observers
can construct the crime by the very intensity of their
scrutiny.  



Ted Gioia's latest book is The Jazz Standards: A
Guide to the Repertoire.
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Further Clues:

"The Plotlessness Thickens," a Review of Cosmos by
Neil Gordon from the The New York Times

"Gombrowicz or the Sadness of Form" by Ricardo
Nirenberg

Witold Gombrowicz Archive at Yale University
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